David O’Russel is no stranger to the family unit, subverting it oedipully (?) in his debut, Spanking The Monkey, exposing the dynamics within the army as family in the fifty percent great Three Kings, very nearly pulling off an “everything is connected” universe family in I Heart Huckabees and then coping comfortably with a genre flick that dealt with nothing but brotherly love and hate in The Fighter. With Silver Linings Playbook we find him cosy in his wheelhouse as he adapts Matthew Quick’s novel about a dysfunctional family with a streak of mental illness in Philadelphia into a loose, shaggy, wry tale of obsessive behaviour, love and loss and the American Football team that binds them all together.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man released into his parent’s care (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) from an institution where he has been incarcerated for eight months for assaulting the man he found graphically involved with his wife when he returned home one day. Armed with a plan for mental health called “Excelsior” and a fitness regime designed to win his estranged wife back, Pat sets about re-integrating with society, meeting old friends, bonding with his spiky father over Philadelphia Eagles games and finally meeting Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany has lost her cop husband recently and reaches out to Pat for companionship. Pat begins to use her in a scheme to get a letter to his wife who he is restrained from seeing by a court order. In a totally non-shocking cliché Pat and Tiffany begin to fall for each other as they practice for a dance competition…who would’ve thought it?
Silver Linings Playbook (awful title, we kept forgetting it prior to our screening.) treads that very tricky line between comedy and drama, too funny and the mental illness’ would be viewed as trite handles on which to hook jokes, too serious and the bittersweet edge of comedic reality would be lost in a shower of pathos. Fortunately, O’Russel skillfully navigates this track to deliver possibly his most balanced, enjoyable film yet.
Using the Philadelphia Eagles (the birds, as their fans call them) as a focal point for its characters and their community, Silver Linings Playbook accentuates their rivalries with the New York and Dallas teams to accentuate the rivalries within the families. Every Sunday is game day, the family gather, eat snacks cooked by Mom and argue over every play, every comment and every past hurt, this is a much more effective form of therapy for Pat than the state provided psychiatrist. Even Tiffany, who ostensibly hates football, knows every stat and result, such is the import of the Eagles.
Bradley Cooper manages to pull off an impressive “not being smug” performance which is good news for those who watched The Hangover, A-Team and Limitless with a lingering urge to never stop punching him. De Niro manages to summon some fire back into his eyes, playing Pat’s OCD father with verve but Jennifer Lawrence is the star here. Bruised, vulnerable and resolutely unapologetic for a promiscuous period following her husband’s death, Lawrence gives Tiffany an edge that feels as if it could be shattered any moment. A scene in which Pat and Tiffany argue in a diner and then in front of a movie theatre showcases both her highly visible broken heart and the skillful writing that O’Russel has supplied her with. Tiffany is unable to keep the emotion from her face and Lawrence uses this to portray a woman on the brink of slipping into alcoholism and self-pity. Her roles following this film will be scrutinised closely.
The whole thing builds to a brilliantly handled, multiply important dance-off climax that is funny and charming and perfectly integrated with the rest of the film (Unlike Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, films that exist solely to try and impress you with a quirky dance at the end and are instantly forgettable.). Important to every character and wonderfully pathetic, the win/lose conclusion is emotionally satisfying and at least semi-plausible, managing to avoid leaving a Hollywood sheen over proceedings that would have rung hollow with the preceding honesties revealed.
O’Russel seems to be getting into his groove and his (relatively) inexpensive movies, which have actors clamouring to appear in them (for knockdown fees, presumably) should continue to expose us to familiar forms of the human condition skewed through his off kilter, left field eyes for a long time to come.